At last, the gruesome, grueling, relentless December marathon comes to end, with the Spurs getting ready to tip off their 19th game in the last 32 nights, and their seventh back-to-back in that stretch. It will also be their tenth game in a row against a quality opponent, a streak that will extend to 11 on Tuesday night against the Wizards.
I wish Gregg Popovich had some good news for you all before you get ready to celebrate the holiday festivities, but sadly that is not the case. The last time the Pelicans visited San Antonio, back in the fifth game of the season, Tony Parker led the Spurs with 28 points and Kawhi Leonard led a spirited comeback late, just rimming out the would-be game-winner. On New Year's Eve though Leonard (torn ligament in right hand) and Parker (strained left hamstring) will miss their fourth game in a row as a tandem, and their return is anything but imminent according to Popovich, at least in Leonard's case.
"It's going to be later rather than sooner," Popovich said of Leonard's return, while saying of Parker, "I think he’ll get back before Kawhi will."
It will be the ninth straight game missed for Leonard in all and the 11th of 13. Parker will have only seen action in three of the past 14, and he was severely compromised in two of those performances, re-tweaking his hamstring.
One of the ways Popovich and his staff have tried to compensate for the shortage of bodies and energy is by playing a lot more zone defense than the Spurs have historically, often in the form of a match-up 1-3-1. While Pop described the execution and effectiveness of those efforts as "Well," I'm not so sure that's been the case, as the Spurs have been conceding open threes and fouling far more than their norm.
What cannot be argued however is his reasoning for trying the zone. I'm completely with him there. "It’s a lot of games, and a lot of back-to-backs, but the quality of teams too was off the charts compared to what you typically get over a whole month, we might have had 10 or 11 playoff teams in a row at one point," Popovich explained, adding, "There was no way that we were going to be able to sustain energy, with this group, being able to do that, without trying to figure out some ways to conserve some energy."
Certainly the Spurs will have to pay very close attention to the Pelicans' Ryan Anderson, regardless of what defense they're in. The Pelicans have other perimeter guys like Tyreke Evans and Jrue Holiday, but neither are in Anderson's class as shooters.
Of course the Pelican's main star is Anthony Davis, and he's not only a legitimate MVP-candidate but has played a huge in role in helping his club already defeat the Spurs twice, with 27 points, 11 rebounds and 6 blocks in their 100-99 win at the AT&T Center on Nov. 8 and 22 points, 12 rebounds and 5 blocks in the 97-90 win the night after Christmas at the Smoothie King Center in New Orleans.
"He’s turned into an elite player," Popovich said of Davis. "He came in finding his way and wondering where he fit in, being a guy who kind of deferred to everyone else and respectfully waiting his turn in a way, and at this point he’s in the top category of players and somebody who’s really progressed in every facet of the game at both ends of the court and also done in a classy way. He’s got no braggadocio about him or anything like that, he just comes and plays. It reminds me a lot of how Tim (Duncan) approached the game his whole career."
Davis is probably looking around wondering where his Kawhi Leonard and Tony Parker are, too.